The future of skiing and boarding

The Olympics are a big part of Whistler’s future, but the future of the ski and snowboard "industry" is even more fundamental to Whistler’s well being.

That seems fairly obvious but it’s worth remembering in the context of Minister of State for Deregulation Kevin Falcon’s task force that is trying to stimulate resort development in B.C.; recent statements by the Canadian Ski Council; and the Whistler. It’s Our Future process.

Last winter was a record year for skier visits in both Canada and the United States. But projections by the Canadian Ski Council show a 21.9 per cent decline in domestic skier visits over the next 15 years unless programs are put in place to mitigate the decline. The Grade 5 ski pass program, which has been in place for several years, is one part of that program.

But a report in the July 2003 issue of Ski Area Management reinforced the notion that skiing and snowboarding need help. The story stated that baby boomers and snow can’t be counted on to keep the ski and snowboard industry healthy; many more new skiers and boarders are required to sustain the industry. The writer surmised that the next generation of North Americans that exists is in large numbers, the echo boomers, are more ethnically diverse than the baby boomers. They are also more likely to be obese and they have more leisure options than had the boomers. Many are also more likely to play computer games and to buy clothes and other props of a culture than to actually participate.

A couple of weeks ago a partnership of Alberta resorts, energy companies, the provincial government and Ken Read, president of Alpine Canada, announced a plan to provide free skiing to all Grade 2 students in that province. The program was presented as a way to reduce obesity in children, but it also happens to fit with the belief of Read and others that children need to be introduced to skiing and boarding earlier than Grade 5 if they are to make the sport a lifetime activity.

The rest of the Canadian ski industry was a bit miffed that Alberta announced the Grade 2 program on its own when everyone had been working on a similar program, but no one is objecting to introducing more kids to the sport.

Closer to home, during a recent discussion about Whistler. It’s Our Future the point was raised that some European countries take a different approach. French policy, for instance, requires ski resorts to provide accommodation at a variety of price points; a few hostels and low-price motels/hotels are mandatory at each resort. The idea being that skiing and snowboarding are sports that should be available to everyone.

This is in contrast to the way the sport is perceived by the general public and much of the mainstream media in North America. Skiing, in particular, is more and more considered an elite sport, one that requires a significant financial commitment and considerable time. (Interestingly, snowboarding has cultivated a sort of anti-establishment/poor cousin image that is still accepted by many, yet it costs just as much to snowboard as to ski.)

Whistler, which fought hard during its formative years to overcome any notion of being a discount resort, is now one of the top ski resorts in the world and is what Canadians point to when they say skiing, or boarding, have become too expensive.

So, back to Whistler. It’s Our Future . It’s recognized and generally accepted that a steady influx of young people enthusiastic about skiing, snowboarding and being in the mountains is crucial to the vibrancy and success of Whistler. This is why we need employee housing.

Whistler, and the rest of the ski/snowboard industry, also needs to be open to young families and individuals who can’t afford to stay at the best hotels. But there is no policy for lower-priced accommodation here, as there is in France. In Whistler, hotel development has been driven by real estate. A model which helped Whistler develop – strata-titling hotels – also leads to a demand for return on investment, and investors find a greater return on high-end hotels.

The problem of affordability and accessibility to people of various income levels is not insurmountable, but it needs to be recognized. The ski/snowboard industry is working on it. Perhaps Whistler should be looking at it too.


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